I never used to think of myself as an ambitious person. Anyone who judges me on the surface-level probably still wouldn’t say that I was.
My resume doesn’t look like the resume of a particularly ambitious person. It looks like the resume of every other English major who went to a respectable public university and got reasonably good grades. My job isn’t the job of an ambitious person. The career I have been pursuing since graduation will never earn me a six figure salary or enable me to enact sweeping global change. I make enough to pay my bills. My boss has described me as being “self-sufficient and very pleasant to work with.”
In my personal life, I blog, but I have no plans to write a novel. I run, but I don’t imagine I’ll ever train for a marathon. I’ve never had any grand dreams of fame or fortune, which is good, because the path I’ve taken since college probably won’t lead me to either.
Yet, if there’s anything I’ve learned as I pretend to be an adult, it’s that ambition looks different on everyone. And, sometimes, ambition sneaks up on you gradually.
Starting Small Town
If you had asked me ten years ago what I thought I was going to do with my life, I really would not have had any idea. Of course, very few 14-year-olds do. If pressed, I probably would’ve said I envisioned myself being a wife and mother, probably to several kids, and maybe working a part-time job. I definitely didn’t envision a career in anything that would take me out of my hometown in rural Pennsylvania.
I couldn’t imagine anything different, because this was all I knew. My mother was my only family member who had gone to college. However, she has been a stay-at-home mom since my brother and I were very young, giving up her entry-level office job at one of the only corporate employers within a 50 mile radius after becoming a mother. The rest of the women in my family, and the mothers of most of my friends, were also stay-at-home wives and mothers.
The men I grew up with worked the kind of blue collar jobs that you might need to go to trade school for, or you might just need a high school diploma and the willingness to get your hands dirty. While there’s nothing wrong with these kinds of jobs, the stigma that these were “men’s jobs” was ingrained in my psyche at a very young age. My vision of what I could do as a woman was limited.
I majored in English without any idea what I would do with my degree. I was the first person in my family who could even define what a humanities degree was. It was clear I would have to get a job as soon as possible after graduation to prove to my friends and family that majoring in a language you already speak is, in fact, NOT a waste of time.
In order to find a job that would meet my expectations, I became the first person in my family to move away, out of that very small town where the cousins living 45-minutes across the county were thought to be the outliers. I didn’t move to New York, or even Philly or D.C., like so many of my college friends dreamed of doing. I took a job two hours north in a slightly more populated part of the state. However, it could have been the moon for all of my familiarity with exotic things like parking meters that take credit cards and restaurants that specialize in ramen noodles.
Because of this move I now have a job where I use my degree. One that allows me to pay my rent and all of my own bills without being dependent on my parents or a significant other. It may not sound like a big deal, but it was the most ambitious goal I could grab onto at a time when my future seemed set to mirror the many generations of wives and mothers who came before me.
Your Dreams Are Always Big (Even If Others Don’t Agree)
I could not exist without these women. They make me even more grateful for my freedom and independence. They help me see how far I’ve come. So while my life may not look very ambitious to the outside observer, when I look back at all the things I’ve done since I declared my college major, I realize my life has changed more than I ever thought it would.
Who’s to say that my future has accomplishments that I haven’t even dreamed of yet? Because I know now that if I had to make a drastic change to my life again tomorrow, I would do it. I could pack up, reinvent myself, and pursue a new future. But I could never go back to being the girl who wanted to live her entire life in her hometown.
Sometimes I wonder if I had a different upbringing where I would be now. If I had the money to attend a top-tier university or the opportunity to take a year off and backpack through Europe perhaps my plans for my life would look different. Perhaps an ivy-league education would’ve brought out my competitive side, and I’d currently be pursuing a career in New York or L.A. Perhaps the ability to see more of the world would’ve inspired me to want to change it, instead of just being proud that my family’s opinion now holds no power over my political views.
Learning to Redefine Ambition
With a whole lot of “maybes,” I might be living what society deems a more ambitious life, but I also wouldn’t be the person I am today. And I am grateful every day that I get to live a life where I use my degree and pay my own bills, because many haven’t been granted the opportunities to do even that.
Yes, my life is quiet. I’m okay with that. In fact, I’m actually quite happy. Because I believe the greatest ambition you can have in life is to continually grow and change as a person, and this will look different on everyone you meet.
For every person who dreams of winning a Pulitzer or running for Congress, there is also a person who just wants to earn a college degree or own their own home. The former may be seen as more ambitious than the ladder, but they are both just striving to live their lives the best that they can live them. They both are embracing new opportunities. I can only hope to do the same.
I never used to think of myself as an ambitious person, but these days I’m learning to redefine ambition for myself.